On the Margin’s Margin: Some Fragmented Thoughts on the Circumstances of Those who Make Art


This paper seeks to address those circumstances that can make the production of art in the Arab region a first step towards the marginalisation of the artist; not always deliberately, although certainly so at others, but in particular when the artist engages in controversy in their local context.

We endeavour to outline some of the circles of influence which can affect the production of art in the region, and examine the different ways in which the arts can be captured and reformulated, turning artists into ‘troublesome minorities’ who pose a threat to society: either bought by ‘foreign agencies’, or disrespectful to the customs and values of wider society. With the ever growing challenges facing the freedom of artistic expression and the continual and vicious assaults against freedom of thought that have been mounted in the wake of popular uprisings in the region, we find that communities of artists in countries such as Egypt, Lebanon, Libya, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Yemen and others, face a number of dangers. These dangers together constitute a process of marginalisation, which turns artists into a minority, nullifying their productivity and falsifying their image in the public eye.

We take a closer look at a range of experiences faced by individual artists in different contexts and circumstances, and focus on the circles and alliances that facilitate the transformation of artists into a minority, either through marginalisation, making them an issue in the court of public opinion, or in representing them as an active and pressing danger.

The subject of this paper is the community of artists, creative and cultural producers in some countries within the Arab region, and the challenges they have been called on to address as a meaningfully distinct group, both during and after the period known as the Arab Spring. It presents a closer examination of their role and status in the context of the questions and problems facing the region. We look at the public image of this community, the battles they fight, and the frameworks that are used to categorise them as a minority and/or majority.

The working assumption of this paper is that the values espoused by the Arab revolutionary movements, which held freedoms to be a right of the population as a whole, had a direct impact on the artistic community and contributed to a shift in their status and social power. The dominance of street movements during 2010-2011, and the consensus among all members of society over the need for equal access to rights, dignity, a rejection of repression in all its forms, and the importance of a functioning civil society, saw artists being accepted as a part of the majority in countries such as Egypt, Syria and Libya. Artists were seen as legitimate standard bearers of the revolution, no different to other revolutionaries, an approach that made its influence felt in neighbouring countries. This initial period of mutual engagement and consensus was overturned in the course of the counter-revolution and its deployment of a discourse which sought to exclude various social classes and type, among them the artist, as being ‘astray’: troublemakers categorised as a mercenary minority, linked to foreign powers or otherwise, who sought to weaken dominant social values.

The Need to be a Majority: Art as Revolution   

During the Arab Spring, many artists and cultural producers made the decision to take to the streets and redefine public space in terms that asserted its ownership by all members of society without distinction. In Egypt and Syria, and during the mass civil society demonstrations in Lebanon, many such instances could be observed, in which the artist community attempted to become part of a larger social grouping, rejecting the restrictions of their minority identification. They did this by producing artistic materials whose primary value lay in sensitivity to the depth of their commitment to change, and by sending the message that artists, and artistic freedom of expression, were not special cases, but instead stood on an equal footing with other voices in society. In other words, that there is no distinction between the arts and the values of the people, and that the arts community makes no claim to exclusivity, to being an elite, but rather is one part of a majority, grounded in its society. Below are two different examples of how this process played out:

1.    The Signs of Kafranbel

The Syrian town of Kafranbel was the public face of the Syrian revolution in the first years of the movement: a marginal municipality where Syrians would hold up crude signs made by local residents that delivered a tightly-focused discourse centred on a rejection of exclusion, extremism and armed resistance, and championing the sufferings of the people. There is much to say about the Kafranbel phenomenon and the intelligence with which it managed to give expression to developments on the ground and broadcast them to the world, but what concerns us here are the values it embodied: turning citizens into creative agents without altering their status as members of the popular majority.

The Kafranbel project was based on the principle of active and regular (weekly) participation in the non-violent popular movement, and it established real and practical links with the revolutionary movement proper. The signs demonstrated engagement by ordinary citizens; their value and impact lay in the simplicity of their design and execution, their lack of professionalism, and their focus, instead, on delivering intelligent, satirical messages, which gave expression to the sentiments of many Syrians and could be said to represent them. This shift, which shattered stereotypes of the artist as a member of the social and intellectual elite, refashioning their image as an ordinary citizen who used art as a tool to give expression to popular sentiments, was the product of an historical moment in which the Syrian people were focused on the need to bring down the regime. But it was also fuelled by the ability to take a different approach to the idea of the artist: no longer did membership of this supposed minority require membership of the arts world.

The legitimacy of this ‘revolutionary’ art was derived from its association with the revolution. It was, in other words, a tool of popular resistance which, read in different ways, could be used by political movements both internally and abroad, and had relevance during times of open warfare, and during the crises faced by Syrians and non-Syrians alike.

The two men behind the project were: Raed Fares, the revolution’s media officer for Kafanbel, and Ahmed Jalal, a dental technician who closed his laboratory at the start of the revolution and began to draw satirical cartoons on scraps of card for demonstrators. Their standing within the movement never went beyond that of founding members, though any two men in their position could have easily gone on to positions of leadership had they wished. At the same time, the importance of what they did cannot be downplayed: initiating an action that saw dominant ideas about an ‘elite’ replaced by a sense of general inclusivity, which stated that we, as artists, are not cut off from our society, and that, as Syrians, we are not isolated from the outside world: we are impacted by all political powers and the decisions they take.

These signs do not make the claim that they are purely democratic expressions which take into account the views of all of Kafranbel’s residents, rather they are a form of democratic practice which derive their legitimacy from residents and Syrian society as a whole, and they link revolutionary values and the activism of art with a practice that legitimised and promoted the use of signs in public spaces.

2.    Art is a Midan

The Art is a Midan (Art is a public square) project began in April 2011 as an independent artistic and cultural initiative promoting the reclamation of public space in Egypt using culture and the arts. It first gained momentum at a festival held once a month in various squares around the country: Abdeen Square in Cairo, and others in Alexandria, Assiut, Minya and Suez. By October that same year it had spread to fourteen governorates and cities throughout Egypt, with an expansive social and political message, and by 2014, when it finally closed, the festival was one of the longest-running cultural platforms in Egypt.

Art is a Midan sought to restore art and culture to the streets in support of freedom of expression, democracy and diversity, gambling on its ability to establish firm links between art, culture and public space. The combination bolstered the revolution in the public squares, because by reimagining public space as belonging to the masses, it provided legitimacy to all those involved in the revolution, as well as their cause. Its contribution was to present a vision of what the triumph of a civic majority could look like, by engaging with Egyptian society, civil society and arts organisations, independent artists, youth groups, official cultural institutions, security agencies and the media.

Unlike the organisational model of the Kafranbel movement, Art is a Midan active in public squares throughout Egypt between April 2011 and August 2014, was organised through independent arts institutions in Egypt, the Independent Culture Coalition and a group of volunteers from the provinces, working together with ordinary Egyptian citizens and the institutions of state. Despite this difference, both initiatives shared their view of art and artists as a minority that could be legitimised by incorporating it into a majority representative of all classes within society.

Art is a Midan restored the right of Egyptian citizens to benefit from and use public space and abolished the main causes of the unjustifiable distinction between a majority which saw public life as a space for mutual cooperation and participation and a minority which worked to improve and enrich the life of the majority. It was these underlying causes, perhaps, which made shutting down the initiative necessary following El Sisi’s coup. The new president’s rise to power made the need for art and freedom of expression even more imperative if civil society were to play a clear and forceful role in promoting concepts such as social justice, freedom and equality among the broad mass of citizenry.

The Art is a Midan project, as a platform which gave art legitimacy, was to effect a transformational shift towards a political space for the people, in which issues such as abolishing military trials for civilians could be debated.

The two examples above illustrate different ways in which individual artists and creative members of a group which for years had been characterised as a minority divorced from reality, can be redefined as active members of society. They proved that the validity of this false assumption could be broken by the very means used to assert it: the artists condemned for their detachment could escape condemnation by engaging with the majority, where ‘majority’ means the citizenry.

The Counter-Revolution: the Need to Create an Enemy or Troublesome Minority

As counter-revolution tightened its grip in the region, there were widespread instances of anger, frustration and psychological breakdown at the inability both to create a meaningful artistic response and reenergise the street. Social tensions grew, prices rose, traditional values returned, and the collapse of dreams for change were accompanied by anxiety and foreboding over the future. One manifestation of these ominous changes was the return of the artist as a troublemaker and social failure, restored to their place among other social and professional categories and minorities, such as journalists and those calling for the restoration of public freedoms.

So, the attempt to redefine the meaning of artist involved turning them into a minority, but it was a kind of minority quite different to the one it had been before the revolution. This new minority posed a threat to the majority and attempted to infiltrate it, and it was the responsibility of the majority to maintain a clear line of separation between itself and the artist. This methodical targeting was principally practised by the state. As the popular revolutions lost their luster, there was a rise in the violations of cultural rights and freedoms practised against artists and cultural producers. The dictatorships were back. From 2015 onwards there were increasing numbers of reports of artists being imprisoned and their works confiscated, processes helped by the steady drip of legislation designed to curtail what freedoms remained.

The increasing social and political instability in Syria, Iraq and Yemen has led directly to flagrant violations of cultural rights. The Syrian regime, for instance, continues to detain opposition artists and writers such as Zaki and Mihyar Cordillo, Samar Kokash, Adnan El Zaraei, and others, while various arts unions call for opposition artists to face criminal and terrorist charges, even if they live outside the country, as a punishment for their political beliefs. In 2016, for example, the Union of Syrian Artists submitted a report calling for a number of its members to be referred to the criminal courts for their ‘refusal to pay union dues’, even though most of the names appearing in the document belong to artists living abroad who already face long prison sentences issued by the Terrorism Court, which was set up by the regime following the outbreak of the revolution. They include Jamal Soleiman, Abdul Hakim Quoteifan, Mai Skaf, Maxim Khalil, Louise Abdelkarim, Samih Choukaer and Mazen Al Natour. In January 2016, the Algerian police detained the guitarist Mohammed Douha, triggering a movement in support of the musician and the right of all artists and intellectuals to reclaim the public space and practise their right of direct free expression to the masses. The protests, which began in Oudan Square in the capital, spread to social media and from there to European capitals. Even after the lifting of the state of emergency in 2011, Algerian law still prohibited unlicensed demonstrations, thus hampering efforts to engage in more widespread artistic activity in public. Since 2011 increased pressure from cultural figures has forced the authorities to free cultural activities from the constraints of licensing and has seen the state respond in a rather erratic manner, sometimes clamping down and sometimes granting permission more liberally.

In Egypt, the promulgation of the new Civil Society Law on 29 November 2016 placed further restrictions on civil society work and gave the authorities vague and sweeping powers to censor such activism. The law forbids any activity which acts against national security and public safety, legitimises government interference in the activities of civil society groups, particularly with regards to funding, and stipulates penalties of up to five years imprisonment or fines of up to one million Egyptian pounds, should the organisation engage in polling, field research, or any other form of civic activism, without first registering in accordance with the law; or cooperates in any way with any other international entity—including the agencies of the United Nations—without obtaining the necessary permissions.

From the above we can see that the agencies of the state are attempting to create a narrative which asserts that, within such groups and organisations, are individuals whose activities need to be controlled and curtailed through legally-enforced penalties and imprisonment. To protect both themselves and their relationship with the ‘homeland’ or ‘revolution’ (the definition of both terms having been fully co-opted by the authorities), organisations are expected to isolate this minority.

A second strategy operating in parallel and pursued once artists have been redefined as a minority, is to describe them as the enemy and position them in open conflict with the majority. There are many examples to choose from, but here we will look specifically at the experience of the band Mashrou Leila. In 2016 and 2017 the Jordanian authorities refused to grant the group permission to perform at private functions. They were also banned from performing in Egypt in 2017. Such bans have been accompanied by a sustained public assault on their reputation. The decision to ban them from playing was taken after a group of Jordanian MPs objected to the fact that the concert was being supported by the ministry of tourism and had been granted necessary permissions. When one of the parliamentarians submitted a complaint that Mashrou Leila, ‘advanced ideas alien to our communities, promoted Satan worship and spoke openly about homosexuality,’ the mayor of Amman cancelled the concert.

Meanwhile in Egypt, the debate centred on the band displaying a rainbow flag (a symbol of queer culture) during a concert in the country, which resulted in the Union of Musical Professions passing a resolution to ban all future performances by the group inside Egypt. The union justified its decision by stating that it was ‘against all deviant art’, and rejecting accusations that it had been responsible for allowing previous concerts by Mashrou Leila by pointing out that such concerts required permission from three separate bodies: the Union of Musical Professions, the Workforce Union, and the General Security Directorate. Here, the technique used to attack the artist’s status is to categorise them as a minority which poses a threat to the lifestyle of the majority: it elides artistic expression and the beliefs of the group that produces it. Homophobia is a weapon used in all countries across the region. In a related incident, Lebanon’s attorney general moved to stop all activities associated with Beirut Pride two days after festivities began on 12 May 2018. The festival, which was due to run until 20 May, and which comprised a range of social, artistic and cultural activities designed to reflect the aims of the International Day Against Homophobia, received the banning order an hour before scheduled readings at the Zuqaq Theatre.

Last year, as a part of the same strategy, a group of young Libyan writers were subjected to a widespread campaign of slander and harassment, including threats of physical harm on social media and on the websites of official media outlets, a few days after the publication of an anthology of poetry, short stories and excerpts from novels entitled, A Sun On Closed Windows. The campaign, which saw the writers described as unbelievers and traitors, focussed on the appearance of certain words and phrases in the anthology’s texts, especially in an excerpt from a novel entitled Kashan, first published and distributed in 2012.

Since the breakdown of security in Libya and the spread of militias, threats of this kind represent a real and present danger which must be opposed by all who take a principled stand in support of freedom of thought and creativity and who oppose intellectual terrorism.

In 2016, the Egyptian author Ahmed Nagi was imprisoned on charges of offending public sensibilities because his novel contained scenes of a sexual nature. The incident was described at the time as an ‘assassination’ of public space for free expression and a ‘confiscation’ of the right to political engagement.

In all this we can observe the ‘satanising’ of artists, by categorising them as members of an evil minority intent on disrupting ‘security and the public interest’ by attacking all that is ‘good and right’, as well as increasing numbers of campaigns to ban or promote censorship against artistic censorship. In Algeria, in 2016, a ruling by the ministerial censorship board to ban the release of the film Vote Off, directed by Faycal Hammoum, on the grounds that it disrespected the symbols and sovereignty of the state (because it would affect the participation of young people in the 2014 elections), was violated when the film was shown on the last day of the banning period, a symbolic move that ignored the legal complaints raised against it.

In the same period Sudan also witnessed an increasingly stringent security situation which manifested itself in continual (and illegal) interference from the security services to prevent and obstruct cultural events and activities. Shooting of the film, A Handful of Dates, based on a short story of the same name by Tayeb Salih, was obstructed on routine bureaucratic and administrative grounds. The Union of Sudanese Writers had been ordered to close its offices, before the union appealed and managed to overturn the ruling in December 2016. It was closed anyway and the headquarters of the Muntada Al Shurouq organisation were also closed.

In Mauritania, the authorities moved to shut down all independent satellite channels (Elmourabitoun TV, Chinguit TV, Sahel TV, Elwataniya TV, Dava TV) in the first such move of its kind since they had begun broadcasting five years previously. The reason given was that they had accumulated a debt of unpaid taxes to the value of two billion ouguiya (approximately five and half million US dollars), but the question had to be asked: Why now, exactly? Were the taxes really the reason for the closure? Or was it that the government deeply regretted widening the margin for free expression and wanted to restrict it once again?

On 3 March 2018, the Egyptian military prosecutor ordered the imprisonment of a theatre troupe for fifteen days pending investigation on charges of slandering the Egyptian army. This followed a lawsuit brought by a lawyer, Samir Sabry, and the military prosecutor, against Ahmed El Gerhy (director), and Walid Atef (scriptwriter), for putting on a performance of a play entitled Suleiman Khater at the Shooting Club in Cairo, which contained criticism of the Egyptian Army and its role in fighting enemies of the state. The suit asked that the accused be tried in the criminal courts.

And what now?

The orchestrated political campaigns described above are accompanied by an increasingly dominant discourse which states that culture and the arts should not be a priority for governments and societies during periods of major change. This discourse further intensifies the already serious marginalisation faced by both civil society and society in general, but it also seeks to exile artists from the community at large: uncategorisable, historically-demonised individuals. The danger of such a shift is that it takes place in the absence of any proper framework to produce legal and security-based studies of the position of artists, or of any attempt to raise awareness of the challenges that artists face. But the situation is becoming even more dangerous as security agencies make alliances with various social classes on the understanding that their assaults on cultural institutions are a part of the war on terror and the preservation of internal security. There is no more telling example of the destruction this causes than the case of Ziad Itani who was released in March 2018, following his detention on charges of cooperating with Israel to encounter subsequent complications to do with political persecution and personal vendetta. The troubling aspect of this case is that when Major Suzanne Al Hajj decided to take revenge on him and found herself unable to imprison him, she promptly attempted to turn him into an enemy of the people.

The question remains: Who will champion this vulnerable minority? Who will restore their reputation in the public eye? Who holds who to account?    

Translated from the Arabic by Robin Moger.